Select Page

Rabbi Jamie’s Corner
June 2024
We’re happy to share these thoughts on current events from Rabbi Jamie Hyams (our Development Director).

Last week the Southern Baptist Convention voted to oppose the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF) because they believe life begins at conception and thus disposal (or destruction) of any unused, fertilized embryos is akin to murder. For them, a fertilized embryo is a pre-birth person, a “fetal person” with rights just like you and me.

Hebrew Free Loan is proud of our interest-free Fertility Loan Program. Our loans help build families that would otherwise not have been possible, and we have assisted hundreds of individuals and couples bring children into the world through in vitro fertilization, adoption, and other means. Helping to create or grow a Jewish family has always felt like one of the most meaningful things we do.

How might the increasing number of policies based on the idea that life begins at conception affect the Jewish community and our ability to follow Jewish traditions?

The idea that life begins at conception is pervasive in American culture. It is the basis for legal decisions that determine what methods of birth control are permissible and whether an abortion can be performed. And in some ways the idea resonates with me; when the sperm and the egg come together, we set in motion a process that has the potential to result in a baby.

But where does this idea come from, that life begins at conception? Is it based in science, and if so, in what ways? What does Jewish tradition have to say about abortion and whether fertilized embryos are considered human lives? And if Jewish tradition conflicts with the ideas that guide many of the policy conversations in the American public sphere — ideas that are often based in Christianity — will Jews be forced to compromise their religious beliefs to be in accordance with state and federal laws? Does it matter that a “fetal person” cannot survive outside of the mother’s womb on its own? Does it matter that a person might be born into a family that does not have the ability to care for them? These questions are complex, personal, and in many cases, subjective.

It is beyond the scope of this column to fully explore these ideas. But two years after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I’d like to offer you a few ideas from Jewish tradition upon which to chew.

1. The fetus does not have meaningful status for the first 40 days; therefore, it is considered part of the body of the pregnant person.
If a woman miscarried on the fortieth day, she need not be concerned that it was a valid childbirth… the fashioning of the male and the fashioning of the female both take forty-one days. (Mishnah Niddah 3:7)

2. The full status of personhood begins at a viable birth.
If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child]. But if the greater part (the head) has come out, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another. (Mishnah Oholot 7:6)

3. The fetus does not have the status of personhood. Causing a miscarriage incurs monetary damages, not capital punishment for manslaughter.
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. (Exodus 21:22-25)

So, from a Jewish perspective, when does the embryo become more than a combination of cells? The Talmud teaches that until 40 days from conception, “the fetus is merely water.” [1] And in response to the question raised above, does it matter that a fetus cannot survive outside of the mother’s womb? From a Jewish perspective, absolutely. Until the head emerges, the fetus is considered secondary to the mother’s health and is expendable to save her life.

Our tradition teaches that life does not begin when the sperm and the egg combine. In fact, to quote the great Jewish sage Carl Sagan, life began when the universe came into being. “Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago.” [2]

Don’t misunderstand me. Jewish tradition is not cavalier about pregnancy and the value of life. In fact, life is so highly valued in our tradition that we are given permission to break the Sabbath to save someone’s life, if needed. [3] And according to a famous Talmudic teaching, “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.” [4]

But we view the question of when life begins, and when a fetus becomes an independent legal entity, very differently than the Christian/Catholic traditions that inform much of American law today. And it’s worth noting that the Southern Baptist call to ban IVF was not without internal opposition, with some calling the ban unethical and others proposing to change IVF procedures to avoid a surplus of fertilized embryos.

Current IVF practices are an area where Jewish tradition and ideas from the majority culture are at odds. It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out, but if the reversal of Roe v. Wade is any indication, there may be more challenges ahead.

~ Rabbi Jamie
PS: Feel free to reach out to me directly at if you have any questions.

[1] Yevamot 69b:9-10
[2] Sagan, Carl. Billion and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, 1997.
[3] Yoma 84b
[4] Sanhedrin 37a
Read More at Rabbi Jamie's Corner